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Setting Expectations and Employee Engagement

Our DecisionWise consultants recorded a podcast where they shared their thoughts on how setting expectations leads to higher employee engagement. This blog post is a written transcript of that podcast.

Charles: Hello everyone and welcome to the DecisionWise Engaging People Podcast. My name is Charles Rogel. I’ll be moderating our session today, or trying to do my best, because today, we are doing something a little bit different. It is a consultant round table podcast. We have six of us in the room here today. Today’s topic is setting expectations that leads to higher employee engagement. So instead of me describing what we’re going to talk about, let me just open up the floor and have you all give your take on what you think this means and how it works in organizations. And then afterwards, we’re going to tackle this in two ways. We’re going to talk about what setting expectations looks like at the organization level and then what it looks like for managers and their teams. Any volunteers?

How Does Setting Expectations Work in Organizations?

Christian: Yeah, happy to start us off talking about expectations. I’d love to start just chatting about the difference between engagement and satisfaction. We start a lot of our conversations out that way. There’s certain elements in the workplace that drive engagement: meaningautonomygrowthimpact, and connection is our wonderful ENGAGEMENT MAGIC framework that we use with so many clients. But there’s some baseline requirements. Things that we would call satisfaction elements. And setting clear expectations or having clarity in our roles is a key element in that satisfaction landscape. We need to feel a sense of understanding of what success looks like, what our managers expect of us, and how we are expected to contribute to the organization and team success.

Dan: Yeah. And for me, part of why that’s so critical is, and we’ve said this before and we’ve heard it before for years and years, I don’t think people wake up in the morning and go to work and say, “Hmm, how can I go to work and not be successful?” They always want to be successful the majority of time, but they want to go to work and perform well, but they also want to know, to your point, what is the expectation so I can perform against that standard and then give me feedback on helping me understand if I’m achieving what that is. People love the feedback. So I’d hope at some point today, we do not only get into expectations, but that whole loop around, okay, if I’m not being satisfied and it’s inhibiting me being engaged, what are the missing components within that process, if you will, that would help me re-engage and be more. And I think it starts really at the beginning with managers taking the accountability of setting really clear expectations for whatever that is , whether it’s a project, or whatever it might be.

Best Practice

Show your team what success looks like with examples from your own team.

Beth: Yeah, I agree too, Dan. And I would add as a manager, I have had the opportunity to set expectations for people and I try to think of it as painting a picture. The more I can articulate different behaviors, define the competencies, however you want to say it, the more likely it is they’re going to be able to perform well. So I like to give people a lot of examples. If I see one person on the team doing it well, I like to highlight that so others can see what success looks like. Another thing is, I try to keep that top of mind. So in one to ones with people, I try to remind them about what we are aiming for, what that vision is, and help them see where they are meeting the expectation and where they’re not. I think you have to do that consistently or they’re not really going to know where they’re at and, like you said Dan, if they want to contribute, which most employees do, they want that feedback.

Charles: So let me transition here and kind of get the discussion turned towards what organizations can do to set clear expectations. There’s a couple of questions we use on our survey to measure this. One is, “I understand the vision and goals of this organization.” So when we ask employees that, are they clear on what the organization is trying to accomplish? And then the other question we ask a lot of organizations, and they typically don’t score well on this for employees, is “This organization communicates effectively with all employees about what’s going on.” And so from the senior leadership level or organization level, what does clear expectations mean? What does it look like when it’s working, not working, some best practices there?

What Does Setting Clear Expectations Look Like?

Dan: I’ll give you an example from early in my career, how I learned the importance of expectations, both from a managerial standpoint but also from an employee standpoint. So, I was on a team and my manager came to me in January or February and said, “Hey, we want to set some goals and initiatives for the year.” And we listed them out, and we talked about what it would look like, and we talked about resource allocation and funds and sequencing, the standard process. Well, in about February or March of that year, he came to me and said, “Hey, you know, we’ve pulled the funds for this project.” I’m like, okay, so I didn’t do anything on the project. Well, October, November came around and he said, “Hey, I’d like to get ready for you’re performance review. We list all your accomplishments and what you’re able to do and I’ll do the same thing and then let’s get together.” 

Best Practice

Outline clear behaviors and outcomes that will help the employee achieve an optimal performance level.

Well, when we got together, we were comparing our lists, and on his list was this project that we pulled the funds for. And he said, “I’m disappointed that this hasn’t been accomplished.” And I said, well, we pulled the funds. He’s like, “Well, my expectation was still that you had achieved the project.” I learned, at that point, the importance of the interaction between the managers and employees. Because shame on me for never checking in with my manager to see if I was delivering what he expected. Shame on him for never checking in with me over about an eighth month period of time and saying, “Hey, where are you on this project?” 

So to the point that we’ve been talking about, this front end being clear on the behaviors, the outcomes, not the tasks, we don’t want to constrain the autonomy, but being really clear in saying, here’s what it would look like for you to achieve this level of performance. And then back to the 50/50 proposition that we talked about there. There’s accountability for the organization or leaders to be setting those expectations and closing the loop with a feedback conversation. There is also accountability for the employees to go back if they’re not getting that feedback and if they’re uncertain they’re meeting those expectations and they’re feeling dissatisfied or they’re not fully engaged because they don’t know if they’re having the impact that they should, then it’s their obligation to go back and get it as well.


Talk about expectations throughout the year


leaders should clarify their expectations


Create expectations around a shared sense of direction

Christian: Yeah, I love that. And I love that you mentioned accountability in there. How can we hold anyone accountable to expectations that we haven’t set clearly, and even if we’ve set them, was it just during onboarding or did we talk about them continuously throughout the year? These are the expectations. This is how you’re doing. If we don’t have a standard that we’ve articulated and reinforced frequently, you can’t drive real accountability and there’s operational impacts there, but it drives engagement. If people are confused and don’t understand what success looks like, it’s not a pleasant situation for very long.

Dan, you talking about that experience that you had. I’ve been there. It limits the amount of, if we think of those engaging factors, how can I feel a sense of impact if I don’t understand what basic success looks like? The criteria. Thinking through the clients I’ve been working with recently, I had one where we saw that at the manager level, we didn’t have the team accountability, but it came from the top. There was a lack of clarity at the top and clarity needs to flow from the beginning. 

That item you mentioned Charles around, “I understand the mission, vision, and values of the organization.” We also have another one that they’re important to me personally. If those aren’t in place, it can be because we’re not communicating them effectively or it could be we’re not aligned. We don’t have a shared sense of direction. And so we don’t know where we’re going as an organization. It’s very hard for front-line managers to drive that expectation and clarity and accountability, and it impacts the employee experience, it drives low satisfaction and certainly low engagement.

Stephen: Along that line, I’ve seen a lot of success with the practical recommendation of organizations having regular one-on-ones between their managers and their employees. And there’s a certain maturity to those one-to-one meetings where they often start off as status updates, where managers and employees can get aligned on where things are at with workload and the projects that those employees have. 

But as they progress, they turn into more conversations about that employee’s growth and how they’re stepping into the job role at a broader perspective and really growing and meeting some of those expectations for long-term development. 

And then it’s also a fantastic opportunity for those managers to provide regular feedback to their employees, create some of those accountability touch points so that it is very clear all throughout the year where employees are meeting expectations and where they’re falling short of those expectations.

Beth: From an organizational perspective, I think this starts from the very beginning. I’ve worked a lot in high-tech, and I’ve seen that high-tech companies like to paint this picture that their workplace is really cool. It’s laid back. They have ping pong tables and cereal bars. They pick up your dry cleaning at your desk, massages at your desk. I mean all these things. So people have this expectation that it’s going to be like that and life’s going to be great. And a lot of times these tech companies work people like dogs, right? And so people start to feel like, “Oh, you’re doing all those things because you don’t want me to leave my desk. You want me to have no work-life balance. And I thought this was going to be a better life!” 

So I think this is an example of where there’s conflict. When you’ve set expectations that you don’t meet, there’s conflict. And that erodes trust. And trust is critical in employee engagement. So we have to think as organizations, about what kind of picture we want to paint and if we can live up to that. The more authentic and real you can be from the beginning, the more likely it is you’re going to be able to keep people engaged.  

Best Practice

Don't set expectations you can't meet: this erodes trust and creates conflict.

Dan: Yeah, and that’s a great example of what I mean by the 50/50 proposition. Even in the talent acquisition process and at the very beginning, if an organization describes, “Hey, we work 15 hours a day, but we’re going to bring you free breakfast, free lunch, and we’re going to have an onsite dry cleaning and we’re going to have oil changes and all this on site,” it gives the autonomy, which is what we think of ENGAGEMENT MAGIC. It gives the autonomy back to the person to decide for themselves if they want to opt in for that. If they know they’re going to be working until one o’clock in the morning and that’s what they enjoy, great. Go do it. 

Being clear on the expectations of the organizational context, the manager context, the team context is all critical with an alignment of understanding what’s going on inside of the organization.

Best Practice

Give people a time frame so that they can keep their energy up, rally around the goal, plan, and see the end goal in sight.

Charles: I’ll add to this. In terms of the organization level. I see some organizations where they’re really unclear on their strategy, their goals that they wanna accomplish during the year, or they shift too often. So employees have a tough time getting their heads around where we’re going as an organization. And to your point, Dan, you made earlier, if there’s budget cuts, that has a huge ripple effect because that changes everyone’s plans and how they implement or execute those plans throughout the year. 

One company I saw that did this really well, they’re a water bottling company, and they had a very clear goal to reduce the cost of one package, a case of bottled water by 26 cents. And that was a very clear goal that everyone could get around. Everyone understood what that meant. They could translate that into the amount of work it took them and their specific job to kind of develop or produce a case of water. And they’re actually able to accomplish that in one year. And so having one clear goal that everyone can rally around and easily translates to different people works very well.

Another company I’m working with, they’ve done a good job. They had a fire at one of their buildings. So immediately cut production back by 50%. They were able to recover and get about 80% of the production back just in the one facility they had by implementing additional shifts, and they got all their employees kind of rallied around that. The struggle they’re having though now is that, “When is this going to end? When is the new building going to be up?” 

And so setting expectations, giving people kind of a time frame so they can plan to it, and allowing them to see the light at the end of the tunnel helps to set those expectations and keep the energy up so people can really rally around the goal.

Dan: Like Beth, having come from the software world, I was in a division that was creating a new product every year, and if we didn’t create a new one every year, then we would be destroyed by the competition. But they knew the ebbs and flows in the business. So, at the beginning of the year was product engineering and product development, and then they were working tons of hours. That would kind of ramp down, and then all of a sudden it was sales and customer support. And that would ramp up until the end of the season, and it was cyclical. 

And so to your point, if we can manage and have a window to look forward to versus, “Hey, when is this ever going to end?” It gives us the opportunity to manage those expectations personally so that we can give our best performance over a sustained period of time.

Charles: Is there anything else you want to share about the organization’s responsibility and setting expectations before we talk about manager expectations?

Christian: No, I’ve really enjoyed the conversation because it’s shifted my thinking a little bit, because in terms of expectations, I’m thinking through the clarity of vision of where we’re headed, how we’re measuring our success and cascading that down to the manager’s field. But there’s also the other side of expectation that’s been brought up, which is wonderful, around what expectation we are setting for our employee experience and how are we measuring against that. So, it’s an interesting angle on expectations that I wasn’t necessarily expecting to talk about here. My expectations have been adjusted. But you know, if we think really broadly, the employee experience is really shaped on what expectations employees have going in.

Dan: You know, because it’s so tightly connected with impact. And we know from our surveys, meaning and impact are two very high dimensions. So if I know that I’m being successful, I know that, and I’m getting feedback from my manager and being recognized for that and I’m meeting or exceeding those expectations. It creates that emotional state, and how we describe engagement, my emotional state increases, which then says I want to give additional discretionary effort because I know that I’m doing my best work and it’s hitting the mark that can be very, very energizing.

Manager directing meeting

Survey Questions to Help Measure Managers

Charles: Some of the ways we try to measure if managers are setting clear expectations with their employees in our employee surveys. A couple of questions here. One is, “My supervisor gives me ongoing feedback about my performance.” Stephen, you touched on this in terms of the importance of one-on-ones on a regular basis. Another one is, “My supervisor helps me align my own goals with the work that I do.” And then a third one, “The people I work with (at the team level) take accountability for results.” And the fourth one I throw in here is just about getting regular recognition, for the work that you’re doing. So any of those topics that you want to address in terms of how it ties into managers setting clear expectations?

Helping Managers Set Expectations

Christian: You know a lot of managers are promoted because they were great individual contributors. We can talk about this aspect of advancement in almost every one of these round table conversations, but just because we’re promoted, just because we’re super doers or amazing rock star individual contributors, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are promoted because we know how to manage a team, how to set clear expectations. And so part of that is, I think we need to help clarify that a key component of a manager’s role is setting clear success expectations. And that can be in terms of internal training as well as just the conversation when someone is promoted, but we also need to train them to see what that looks like. 

We need to tell them, “Yes, this is a key part of your job now, to set clear expectations for your team and here’s how you do that. Here’s what that looks like.”

And even if we’ve been managing for many years in different capacities, it probably wouldn’t hurt us all, myself included, to get a refresher on setting clear expectations. But I think sometimes, we just don’t tell managers, “This is a big part of your job, and here’s what success looks like.” We don’t set that expectation for managers.

Dan: And I think we sub-optimize that by only having an expectation, if you will, of setting expectations at the beginning of the process. It’s sub-optimized when we don’t do the full closed loop of wrapping that up with some type of meaningful conversation that helps me understand if I’m delivering against those expectations. 

Another quick example. I had a new employee, she had just transferred in from operations into HR, wanted a career in HR. And she was learning very, very quickly and doing just a really great job. And I’m in the elevator with the division president and she’s like, “So how is so-and-so doing?” I said, “She’s doing great.” She replied,”Have you told her?” And it was one of those learning moments of, “No. I haven’t.” 

So, expectations are so intertwined with not only setting an individual up for success, but also having a standard of closing that loop on the back end so that the expectations are clear and then reinforce when we see them. And it can be as simple as, “Hey just want to let you know you’re on track.” 

Beth: Yeah, I have to jump in here. I completely agree with that, and I’m glad you’re saying recognizing it informally as well as formally. I think a lot of times managers think about the performance appraisal process and that they need to do this at the end of the year: that’s closing the loop to a lot of managers. What I’ve found, is the more frequently you can give it [feedback], the better. And doing it in the moment when it’s close to the behavior is more likely to reinforce it. Also, I worked a little bit with the university of Michigan and they’ve done some great research on positive reinforcement, and you need to say five times more positive things to keep the relationship net positive. And if you start tracking, I’ve tried to do that. It’s difficult to be recognizing people that much. We think positive things, but we don’t always take the time to articulate them.

Thomas: There’s also that aspect of the manager setting expectations for themselves. So saying, “Hey, here’s what you can expect of me.” Have a conversation about what the manager expects of the employee, and tell the employee what they can expect from the manager. You know, we’re going to meet one on one every week, and here’s some of those things. So it goes both ways, it’s not just a one-way relationship. I think that’s important as well.

Charles: All right, well thanks everyone. Thanks consultants at our round table today. Thanks everyone for joining us and we look forward to having you join us on a future episode.